Tag Archives: Coventry

A Squat You Can Do For Your Country

THE RUFF TUFF CREAM PUFF ESTATE AGENCY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th October, 2021

It begins with a disclaimer.  What we are about to see bears little or no resemblance to real events, people or anything.  We take this with a pinch of salt.

It’s 1977 and two young women arrive in London from Coventry for a new start.  They find their way to the eponymous agency, an underground organisation that finds squats for anyone who needs one.  I say ‘organisation’, it’s more of a free-for-all, a post-hippy ‘take what you need, the rest is greed’ collective. It’s the optimistic, can-do attitude socialism missing from politics today.

The trouble is the play is a bit of a mess, sprawling across the stage like its set, a conglomeration of furniture and throw pillows.  Brechtian techniques abound, in a bid to get us thinking about the issues raised rather than engaging with the characters: projections and playback of contemporary news reports set the scene, but only sometimes.  As characters rattle off facts and figures about the people they have homed, it is left to us to wonder if things have improved since then.  (They haven’t).  A missed opportunity to complement the action with facts and figures from today.

It’s not just homelessness.  Domestic violence also features.  The dangers women face by walking out at night… All of which are maddeningly relevant today.  The play touches on them but doesn’t develop them.

One of its problems is there are too many characters, and these are mainly mouthpieces.  The ensemble is lead by Joseph Tweedale as John, whose endeavours lead him to hit the bottle in a big way.  John is a flamboyant character, defiant in the face of authority, and Tweedale certainly has charisma.  An anti-hero.  Antagonistic characters are presented in two-dimensional, satirical ways: a couple of plain clothes coppers provide their own comedy sound effects; a landlord sports a silly bald wig and a huge belly, in true agit-prop style, while those to whom we are supposed to relate speak in arguments, in unconvincing dialogue.

Escaping her abusive boyfriend is Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher); what lifts her storyline above soap opera cliché is the belter of a song she knocks out—the music in this show is rather splendid, courtesy of composer Boff Whalley, with the versatile cast playing live.  The score is infused with reggae and ska beats and its irresistible.  The cast is augmented by “The Choir With No Name” in the auditorium’s boxes, adding depth and harmonies to the vocals.

The second act is tighter than the first, beginning with projected photographs of the real residents of the new nation the squatters establish, the short-lived ‘Frestonia’.  We only hear about it by report.  It might have been interesting to hear from characters living there, what their experience was like, how it all worked, or didn’t…

What we get is agit-prop that doesn’t agitate us.  What gets under our skin is not the inequalities built into our society but the music, performed by this hard-working and talented cast.  The play needs to pick one of its battles and focus on that in order to have a clearer vision and a greater impact.

***

Daisy Ann Fletcher (Lu) and Hannah Azuonye (Ally) Photo: Robert Day


Comedy and no mistake

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 15th June, 2021

It is nothing short of wonderful to be back in a theatre and watching the country’s funniest theatre company, Oddsocks, back on stage, doing what they do so brilliantly, after an enforced hiatus.  Every time the company revisits a Shakespeare play they have toured once or twice before, they do something new with it, thereby keeping their work fresh and funny.  This new production of Errors benefits from a host of folk songs and sea shanties, where previous versions have been resplendent with pop songs.  Here the a capella singing lends atmosphere, and later, when accompanied by instruments, it’s still rousing stuff, keeping the energy levels high during transitions.  I suspect this shift in musical style, using tunes in the public domain, is a cost-cutting exercise in these straitened times, but whether it is or it isn’t, it works extremely well.

Director/adaptor Andy Barrow has cast his Mrs in a lead role.  Producer Elli Mackenzie appears as Antiphoni of Ephesus (and of course her identical twin from Syracuse) thereby cementing her position in my view that she is the funniest woman in the land.  She and Barrow (as the hapless servants Dromio) form an exquisite double act.  It’s a rare treat to see them performing together.   There’s an abundance of physical comedy in this show, including a sequence with a large trunk that reminds me of Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and the slapstick violence between the pair is like two stooges in search of a third.

Oddsocks veteran, the charming Joseph Maudsley makes a welcome return, appearing as Adrian (husband to Antiphoni – the gender swap doesn’t get in the way of the machinations of Shakespeare’s farcical plot).  I was expecting a Rocky moment with Antiphoni calling her hubby’s name – but then, what do I know?  Maudsley has an easy-going, immediately likeable stage presence.  As do new recruits Harrie Dobby and Jack Herauville who fit right in with the company’s madcap style, delivering a range of supporting roles.

Comic business is Oddsocks’s business, hearkening back to commedia dell’arte; it’s the kind of thing that has to be seen live, for the timing, the daftness, and the sheer skill required to pull it off.  And it’s all reasonably faithful to Shakespeare’s text, honed into two-hours traffic on the stage, with the occasional topical reference thrown in for good measure.  The good news is this is the start of their summer tour.  They will surely be visiting an indoor or outdoor venue near you soon.  It would be an error to miss them!

*****

Publicity image. You can check out TOUR DATES HERE.


Bear-Polar Disorder

MADEMOISELLE F

ShopFront Theatre, Theatre Absolute, Coventry, Thursday 10th June 2021

Mademoiselle F was the first person to be diagnosed with what is recognised today as OCD.  We join her in her room in a Parisian asylum in the 19th century, as she battles with and succumbs to her compulsions in a never-ending internal struggle.  In the title role, Miriam Edwards imbues the part with nervous energy and fragility.  She is accompanied by Tyrone Huggins in the role of Polar Bear, who acts as a visitor and a nurse, but mostly as a polar bear.  He regales F with stories of his life in a present-day zoo.  The stories fascinate F (and us) and his descriptions of the modern world have a strong ecological message.

Writer Vanessa Oakes draws parallels between F in her room and the bear in his enclosure, between the mental illnesses suffered by animals in captivity and the prevalence of smartphones in society and our compulsion to continually check them.  There is more to the play than a case study of an all-but forgotten Frenchwoman.

Miriam Edwards finds light and shade in the neuroses of F, and I could listen to Tyrone Huggins all day as he explains everything with warm authority.  Director Mark Evans keeps things tight in the empty but intimate setting, further limiting the space with a length of rope, symbolising the polar bears’ dwindling natural habitat.

It’s engaging, provocative stuff but it’s a case of the contemporary social commentary, with its direct relevance to the way we live, overshadowing the thin biography of the eponymous, practically anonymous, mademoiselle.

****

Bear with: Miriam Edwards and Tyrone Huggins


Hole Lot of Fun

HOLES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020

 

Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.

It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day.  It’s character building, you see.  Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him.  But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.

James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids.  It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better.  Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.

Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace.  Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear.  There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation).  Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda.   Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that.  Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.

Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards.  Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.

The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.

HOLES. Leona Allen, James Backway and Rhona Coker. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Zero and Hero: Leona Allen and James Backway, holed up in a hole while Rhona Croker shines a light (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Beat box and Bicycles

CRONGTON KNIGHTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020

 

Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain.  The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong.  Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her.  The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway.  As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head.  And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.

The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey.  The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange.  One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.

What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.

Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah.  Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.

As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall.  Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.

The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed.  The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect.  Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling.  It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.

Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told.  Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on.  There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live.  The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.

An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie - photo credit Robert Day

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie (Photo: Robert Day)


Art Full

FAGIN’S TWIST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th March, 2019

 

Avant Garde Dance Company’s take on the Dickens classic offers a few surprises among an impressive display of contemporary dance, informed by an urban aesthetic.  It certainly is a sight to see: the precision, the skill, the energy, but I have a problem with the first act.  Apart from an introduction from the Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) there is little in the way of exposition.  The scenes that link the dance sequences are therefore not as clear as they could be, and so while I appreciate the mechanised, repetitive dehumanised routines in the workhouse, I’m not entirely sure who the characters are who plot their escape.

At the top of the second act, Dodger gives us a recap and mentions the others by name at last.  It seems a clumsy way to do things, rather than simply amending the dialogue in the earlier scenes, but at least it leads to better storytelling.  There is some clever rhyming and word play in Maxwell Golding’s writing thought, and some cheeky references to song titles from the Lionel Bart musical.

Arran Green’s Fagin is tall and slender, towering over the action in his big coat and top hat.  Green moves with elegance and humour – spoken scenes are also accompanied by choreographed moves and gestures – and there is a lovely, sinuous quality here.

There is a striking duo (or pas de deux, I suppose) between Bill (Stefano A Addae) and Nancy (Ellis Saul) and a surprising twist (as in plot rather than Chubby Checker) from Sia Gbamoi as Oliver.

Yann Seabra’s costumes reference the story’s Victorian origins, while the score (by various) is relentlessly of the now.  Seabra’s set, before it becomes other things, starts off as a big fence.  Which is what Fagin is, if you think about it!  Jackie Shemish’s lighting is as taut and evocative as the performances; it’s as though the lighting is another dancer!

Tony Adigun’s choreography is expressive, mixing fluidity of forms with sharper, jerkier, inorganic moves but I think as much attention needs to be given to characterisation in the spoken scenes as is devoted to the dance sequences.  Rather than being a moving story, I find myself marvelling at the performance of this amazing ensemble rather than engaging with what the characters experience.

AvantGardeDanceFaginsTwistProduction-2-0126-810x540

The cast of Fagin’s Twist

 


Chilling at Home

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL

Belgrade Theatre,  Coventry

 

When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past.  Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…

And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller.  Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect.  But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use.  FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.

Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability.  Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction.  Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication.   She also has some great reactive moments.

There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras.  Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.

Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.

Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.

 

cold hill

Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…

 


Getting into the Spirit

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th December, 2018

 

Tall Stories bring Oscar Wilde’s novella to the stage in this breezy adaptation devised by the cast.  A quartet of music hall performers (a magician, a comic, a psychic, and the Chairman) enact the story, interspersing their acts between the scenes.  The Wilde and the music hall acts are given equal weight; it’s like we’re getting two shows in one – and there’s a reason for this, a reason for the outmoded music hall motif…But I’ll get to that.

Tom Jude amazes as Tom Artaud, the stage musician.  There’s a lot of stage magic in this production from sleight of hand to making things disappear, and it’s refreshing to behold first hand in this jaded, CGI world we live in.  Jude is also delightful as the disgruntled Sir Simon de Canterville, the eponymous ghost, and hilarious as the housekeeper almost collapsing under the weight of her own baggage.

Matt Jopling is young William Otis, and also a very physical comedian.  His act includes a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, demonstrating Jopling’s well-honed skills, and a wicked sense of humour.  Like the stage magic, it’s a treat to see old-school ventriloquism performed so well and with an edge.

Lauren Silver is William’s twin, Olivia, and also an hilariously hammy stage psychic, retching when the spirits enter her, with her charlatanism on her sleeve – until her tricks work out, that is, and you can’t work out how she does it!

Steve McCourt, the Chairman, is mainly at the piano, but he also appears as the twins’ father, a crass salesman of household goods.  McCourt has a beautiful singing voice, especially when backed by gorgeous harmonies, provided by the other three.  The songs by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw have a jaunty music-hall feel with clever lyrics, but also a melancholy touch.  The entire show has intimations of mortality running through it like lettering in seaside rock.  We are urged to enjoy the moment, to tell our stories well, so that we will be remembered…

Running in parallel to the Wilde story of the spectre with unfinished business, trying to clear his name for a murder he didn’t commit, is the story of the four music hall performers who have their own reasons for setting a record straight.  It ties the production up neatly and cleverly.

This is an utterly charming show, performed by appealing actors.  Using only a simple set of doors and curtains, they conjure up both the music hall stage and Canterville Hall.  The direction (by Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell) keeps things slick and fluid, capitalising on the actors’ physicality and a host of sound effects to add to the humour of the presentation.

A well-crafted, beautiful bauble of a show, it’s not for the little ones, but families with older kids will be tickled and enchanted.  I loved it.

CantervilleWeb2_667_1000_70

Stubborn stain! Matt Jopling, Tom Jude, Steve McCourt, and Lauren Silver

 

 


Double-edged War Puns

OVER THE TOP

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018

 

It’s become quite a tradition at the Belgrade that while the panto is on in the main house, the B2 studio hosts an alternative, something for the grown-ups.  This year, writer Nick Walker chooses the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War and of the start of the women’s suffrage movement as the basis for this pun-riddled romp.

As ever, the script is jam-packed with groanworthy gags, delivered with the rapidity and subtlety of a machine gun, as it tells the story of four men enlisted to go to the Front to rescue a troupe of actresses.  The cast is entirely female – the reason for which becomes apparent by the end.

Laura Tipper sings sweetly as Bell, and harumphs horribly as Sidebottom, complete with period moustache.  Aimee Powell is dashing as Ashwell, dapper in black tie and tails.  Kimisha Lewis shows her versatility as Flowers, a German, and a balletic Red Baron.  Miriam Grace Edwards is magical as stage magician Mickey… The ladies have several roles each and are well-matched for talent and likeability.

Walker’s clever script has a repeating plot device, taking us back time and again to a music hall, interspersed with scenes of action and espionage reminiscent of a John Buchan.  Director Katy Stephens, a veteran of several of these shows, paces the delivery to perfection.  There is a silent-movie type sequence involving a bomb in a French restaurant that is superb, and a break from the otherwise relentless barrage of bad jokes.  (“Is it snails?” “No, this is a fast food restaurant.”)

It’s not all daftness and running around.  Walker, recognising the solemnity of the occasion, provides a sucker punch ending.  We’ve all seen how Blackadder turned out; here the impact is equally if not more powerful as it is revealed that the characters are all based on real women, and there really was a mission to rescue the actresses.  The final moments commemorate the contributions of women to the war effort and the sacrifices they made, something that many of the events we have seen over the past four years have overlooked.

Delightfully corny, rib-ticklingly daft, and ultimately sobering, this is a solid hour of entertainment with a powerful message.

OTT


The Boy Who Never Grew Up

HAMNET

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 21st November, 2018

 

No, you read it correctly.  This is not Hamlet, the great tragedy, but it concerns another production of Shakespeare’s: his only son, the ill-fated Hamnet who died at the tender age of 11 while his father was working away from home.

11-year-old Aran Murphy commands the stage in a beguiling, captivating performance as Hamnet questions the nature of existence.  His refrain is “I haven’t done anything” – referring to the injustice of his untimely end, and the whole of his brief life’s experience.  West embodies innocence and schoolboy curiosity, charming an audience member out of his seat to join him in a scene in which Prince Hamlet is confronted by the ghost of his father.  Hamnet, the boy, is haunted by his absentee father.  “If I don’t talk to strangers, I’ll never meet my dad.”

A perky lad, he has his father’s aptitude for performance.  When his dad finally appears, manifesting on the huge screen that reflects the audience back at itself, the on-stage boy and the reflected boy interact with the figure in perfect unison.  Objects moved by the on-screen Shakespeare move as if by themselves on the stage.  It’s a dazzling piece of stage trickery: they have to pre-record these moments anew at each venue.  Or perhaps it’s some kind of Pepper’s Ghost set-up, brought into the 21st century…

It dawns on us that rather than the son being haunted by his father, the man is haunted by the child he left behind and then lost forever.  A quote from King John is like a punch in the feels.  “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…”

Written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, this is a moving meditation on the nature of life and death, a pint-sized Hamlet, I suppose.  Deceptively simple, this is a powerful production by Irish company, Dead Centre.  Funny, enchanting and poignant, it’s the kind of stuff that stays with you.  Very little is known about the actual boy in question, but I will be haunted for a long time by this breath-taking performance from Aran Murphy (pictured)

aran